Saudi Summer sweep: Is the SPL likely to have any long-term success?
After Cristiano Ronaldo paved the way for megastars to join the Saudi Professional League, many of the globe’s elite – such as Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Neymar Jr. – have joined the Portuguese icon in the lucrative lifestyle of the SPL spending over £700 million. However, with signings underperforming and behind-the-scenes disputes, how long can the Arabian dream last?
On the eve of the January transfer window in the 2022/23 season, the football world was engrossed in the latest news surrounding one of the sport’s greatest icons.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United mutually agreed to terminate the five-time Ballon d’Or and Champions League winner’s contract with the Red Devils, opening the door for the then 37-year-old to join Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Nassr on a two-year deal rumoured to be worth £350 million – making the Portuguese megastar the world’s highest-paid athlete.
However, Ronaldo wouldn’t hold that title for very long as the Saudi Pro League was about to get a drastic shake-up in quality, with clubs from across the league staking their claim on some of Europe’s hottest talent and superstars.
SPL title holders Al-Ittihad were the first to make their statement in the summer transfer window by signing ex-Real Madrid and Ballon d’Or winning striker Karim Benzema, signing a two-and-a-half-year deal – with the Frenchman earning over £500k per day.
Over the course of the window, it was apparent that the main target talent pool for SPL teams was the English Premier League, with 10 players from the league choosing to make the jump to the luxurious lifestyle offered to them. Big names such as Aymeric Laporte, Fabinho, Kalidou Koulibaly and Riyad Mahrez all moved for fees upwards of £28 million.
Al-Hilal were amongst the busiest clubs during the window, favouring moves for star players from lower-level clubs as well as world stars – picking up Aleksandar Mitrovic from Fulham and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ key man Ruben Neves.
Even with all the glitz and glamour offered to the players, there have already been rumours and stories coming out, discussing the turmoil a few have felt in the few months they have spent at their respective clubs – most notably, the biggest stories are circulating around Al-Ittihad with both players and manager said to be unhappy with the situation.
Former Tottenham Hotspur and Wolves coach Nuno Espirito Santos was reportedly unhappy with the board’s acquisition of Benzema, stating that he “does not suit his style” and a disagreement over captaincy caused a rift between the two.
There were also reports that former Celtic star Jota was being lined up for a shock exit soon after joining the club, with SPL reporters claiming that the new signing has already been omitted from the squad.
Al-Ittihad have come out to claim these rumours regarding Benzema are false – however, no statement has been made regarding Jota or Espirito Santos’ future.
After the window closed on a hectic summer for the SPL, there are still many talking points surrounding the league and its practices, that will keep it circulating in the modern football landscape.
For instance, the competitive quality of the league will surely see an increase as the season progresses, but as of now, many teams who spent big this window – such as Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad – are still behind a team who did not make any high-profile signings and even managing to beat one of them.
There is also the demand for clarity on how players will combat the struggle for human rights in the country, similar to the objections towards the Qatar World Cup in 2022.
Former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson has already found himself in hot water for joining Steven Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq, as the LGBTQ+ community has called the Englishman out for negligence towards their views. While Henderson has protested claims that he will not continue to support their movement, many are questioning whether or not the former Kop favourite will push for change given his new environment.
Lastly, the biggest talking point surrounding the SPL has been the finances behind each transfer.
There have been multiple deals that each became more ludicrous than the other, but no deal in the history of football has come close to the bonuses that got Al-Hilal to secure the services of Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain.
Not only did the club pay PSG a whopping £86 million, but Neymar is supposedly receiving around £260 million per year – which is almost double what Cristiano Ronaldo earns.
Neymar also receives the following benefits: £70k each time Al-Hilal win when he features, £440k per social media post promoting Saudi Arabia; Three Luxury Cars (Bentley Continental GP, Aston Martin DBX and Lamborghini Huracan), Four Mercedes-Benz G Wagons, a Mercedes-Benz Van, a Private Jet at his disposal whenever he wants it; and 25-room mansion with full house staff and 40-metre pool.
With all these expenses for just one player – let alone what else they could be receiving that isn’t public knowledge – it begs the question as to whether this league will be sustainable or end the same as the Chinese Super League.
SPL Director of Football Michael Emenalo recently conducted an interview where he addressed these areas of concern. The former Chelsea Sporting Director stated: “We are not just bringing players in to pay them so that they can run around and be famous for a few days. There is an embedded plan to improve the infrastructure and develop the academies and recreational football.”
Emenalo also went on to quash the idea of the SPL ruining the game financially, stating that reports are ‘largely inaccurate’. He then referenced the £80 million deal for Cristiano Ronaldo back in 2009 and how that was deemed insanity: “This is business. The people who have shouted from the rooftops that football needed to be first professionalised and then turned into a lucrative business are now complaining that, like any business, the numbers are starting to sound a bit astronomical.”
After all this whirlwind of a window that Emenalo and his teams took control of and strongly introduced the SPL to the world of football, what are going to be the next steps?
Who will be the next big star to join?
Will it become bigger than the Premier League?
Only time can tell if we have a new elite league to enjoy or if it’s another project that was doomed from the start.
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